In the aftermath of the 1835 riots: a victory for the wealthy

On Maryland History

October 15, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

ON SUNDAY morning, Aug. 10, 1835, Baltimore was a city without any element of law and order. Its leading citizens were in hiding; half a dozen of its most elegant mansions had been ripped apart and burned; hospitals were strained with scores of wounded. Five were dead from a night of rioting by a drunken mob which followed days of rising protest against the closed Bank of Maryland where small depositors had lost the little they had.

For yet one more time, Baltimore called on Gen. Samuel Smith to save the city. The old defender had taken charge when the British sailed up the bay in 1815 to land their army to punish the city. Two decades later, Smith, still spry at 83, proposed the same tactics -- quick mobilization and an overwhelming show of force. The general rode through city streets up to Howard Park for a mass meeting of the citizenry in a carriage that sported a large American flag. He told the crowd that the time for passing paper resolutions was over.

Heavy patrols were organized, perhaps 1,000 men, all well-armed. The streets were quiet that night for the first time in a week. By the next day, when President Andrew Jackson sent in federal troops, there was total order. The troops were not needed for there was no longer a mob. "Public opinion, which had breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, had withdrawn its vitality, and the mob was no more," wrote Junius, one of the inflammatory handbill authors.

Mayor Jesse Hunt resigned in embarrassment. General Smith became the instant law-and-order candidate to succeed him. Jacksonian politicians tried to find an opponent for Smith, who was now a Whig, but the best they could do was the last-minute entry of Moses Davis, described as "seemingly a town drunk." Still, Davis managed to get one-fifth of the vote against Smith.

By the end of the year, some 23 men were tried for rioting. Eight were convicted, though all were pardoned the following June.

The year 1835 had seen dozens of other riots in the country. A visiting French scholar, watching as "Baltimore was given up to the genius of destruction for four whole days," concluded that a "reign of terror" had begun in the United States. Michel Chevalier thought it might be a prelude to revolution. He was far off base.

He thought the country could use more men like General Smith, who -- when challenged at the open mass meeting on whether he would fire on his fellow citizens -- repolied: "Those who break the laws, drive their neighbor from his house, plunder his property and reduce his wife and children to beggary . . . such fellows are not my fellow citizens." Chevalier wrote that the general expressed everyone's thoughts, "but which no one dared utter."

Who were the rioters? Those arrested were mainly young, single men in their teens or 20s, employed as "mechanics" of some skill and considered moderately respectable. Most were drinking during the days of riot. When they broke into homes, they finished off everything in the wine cellars, referring to the wine as "American blood."

James Gordon attended one of the trials and made this diary entry: "Black Hawk was convicted today. I was much struck by his appearance -- the great bug bear that struck terror into the hearts of 80,000 people was a mere youth -- good-natured, smart and fond of fun and, I have no doubt, entered into the mob merely as a frolic."

Friends testified that James Spencer was quiet except when a little drink "set him so." It was Spencer who invited a crowd to Mayor Hunt's home for a tea party and then threw out all the cups, plates and teapots. Peter Harman was the young man who went around claiming that he was the new mayor of Baltimore and began appointing officers for his new administration. Harman, apparently, set several fires but only to the furniture and materials had been thrown into the street. Both Spencer and Harman were found guilty.

There was no single center of planning found for the riot, not a single leader. Some men like Leon Dyer, Benjamin Lynch and Samuel Mass, also known as "Red Jacket," did exert some control over the mob at various periods. Dyer, the son of a German Jew who founded the city's first Hebrew congregation, seemed to have as much of a role in containing attacks on homes as encouraging it. Lynch, convicted for his role, also helped stem some violence. "Gentlemen, we have gone far enough; if we go further we shall lose the sympathy of the people," was a statement attributed to him.

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